By Kalyn Kahler
ORLANDO, Fla. — On her first day on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat for the Miami Herald, Michele Kaufman walked into the locker room and felt completely overwhelmed.
“I didn’t know one guy from the other and I was supposed to be competing with this 45-year-old man who knows everyone,” Kaufman said Friday at the 2014 Association for Women in Sports Media convention in Orlando.
As she walked past the linebackers, she overheard a few of them talking about a couple named Tad and Dixie. An avid “All My Children” fan, Kaufman interrupted to ask if they were talking about the Tad and Dixie from Pine Valley who were characters on the show. One of the linebackers responded, “Girl, do you watch ‘All My Children’?”
The group jumped up and surrounded Kaufman, cheering and high-fiving her. From that moment as a beat writer, she was comfortable around the players and they respected her. Every day in the locker room they all had to discuss the soap opera, and she came away with a great feature on a dirty secret: many professional athletes were huge soap-opera junkies.
Kaufman’s soap-opera knowledge was the detail that connected her to the Buccaneers players. She shared this story as part of a panel on “Cultivating and maintaining relationships with sources” with fellow panelists Amy Shipley of the Sun-Sentinel and Juliet Macur of the New York Times. ESPN’s Nancy Cooney moderated the conversation where the veteran reporters discussed balancing professionalism and access.
When Macur started covering the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, she also felt like she’d never catch up with the reporters who’d been on the beat for years. Like Kaufman, she found her own way to connect with players: writing features.
“Ask to come to his house, talk to his wife, mom and you’ll learn a lot about him,” Macur said. “As time goes on, you’ve written all these profiles, and people start trusting you that way. They learn you are genuinely interested in them and they see the accuracy in your stories.”
Shipley said her key to maintaining a healthy relationship with sources is to always act professionally and not get too buddy-buddy with sources.
“The relationships we form always have to be draped in professionalism,” Shipley said. “It’s not beneficial to have friendships with the people you cover.”
Part of professionalism on a beat is gaining the trust of sources, Kaufman said. While covering the University of Miami men’s basketball program, she discovered that the mother of a player had been a crack prostitute. Miami coach Leonard Hamilton asked her to not write about the player’s mother in the profile.
“I’m asking you as a human not to write that,” Hamilton told Kaufman. “He has no self-confidence, he does everything with downcast eyes. My coaching staff is trying to turn his life around, if you write that, you are going to destroy him.”
Kaufman decided to write around that detail in the story and maintained the trust of Hamilton. It paid off years later when she got a call from Hamilton at 7 a.m.
“He said, ‘There is a really big story with me today, and I want you to break it because you have been really fair and honest,’ ” Kaufman said. “ ‘I trust you and won’t ever forget what you did that that day.’ ”
Kaufman then broke the story that Michael Jordan had offered the Wizards head-coaching job to Hamilton.
Kaufman, Macur and Shipley agreed that the most important key to cultivating relationships with sources is to be friendly and find a way to relate to them personally.
“Let them know you are a human being,” Kaufman said. “You aren’t just a walking tape recorder. Aim for conversations, not interviews.”